— Watching someone bounce off of a giant red rubber ball and then flip dramatically backwards through the air, bouncing off another red ball before splashing into water: that is not an example of complicated television.
It is, however, endlessly entertaining, as ABC’s “Wipeout” has proven for two summers in a row. The simple show sends hapless contestants on a heavily padded obstacle course designed for one thing: to make them fall in dramatic, hysterical ways.
Like summer cuisine, the perfect summer television needs to be light and refreshing, something that leaves you satisfied but that you can return to without feeling overwhelmed. Sometimes that’s something you want to talk about, and other times it’s something you want to pretend you never consumed, like that entire tube of cookie dough.
Summer used to be the time when networks aired mostly reruns of the sit-coms and dramas that aired during the September to May TV season. In 2000, “Survivor” helped change that by drawing record viewers to CBS. Now, the TV season never ends.
There isn’t room in summer for half a dozen “Survivors,” though.
People take vacations or ignore their televisions out of fatigue from the regular TV season, when dozens of must-watch shows are airing simultaneously. Others might actually venture off their couches and outside, especially since daylight lingers well into prime-time.
As a result, the big four networks still tend to avoid broadcasting new scripted series from May to August, but they’ve gorged on reality TV, and cable channels give us plenty of everything. As ABC’s dull and lifeless resurrection of “The Superstars” proved, it’s not easy to make a show work in the summer. We’re not fooled by phoned-in copycat shows, like last summer’s awful “Celebrity Circus” on NBC.
From the selection offered across broadcast and cable television, the best summer TV series are the ones that are entertaining and well-produced, yet still light and uncomplicated.
That explains the other two most-popular summer reality shows: “America’s Got Talent” and Fox’s “So You Think You Can Dance.”
“SYTYCD” is ultimately the same show as “American Idol,” but it works well because the all-consuming drama that infests “American Idol” is absent; in its place is just excellent dancing to creative, entertaining choreography. “America’s Got Talent” tries a bit harder to be “Idol,” but ultimately it’s a variety show disguised as a competition, and whether the act is incredible or pathetic, it’s fun to watch.
Missed an episode to play outside? No biggie
Likewise, the perfect summer TV is something you can obsess over but also miss completely and not really be left out, kind of like an appetizer. Skip it and you won’t starve, but you’ll also be satiated if you do indulge. Fox’s upcoming sixth season of “Hell’s Kitchen” epitomizes this; it’s pretty much been the same show for five seasons, Gordon Ramsay yelling and throwing things at a group of mostly incompetent wannabe chefs.
Dramas can also fit into that mold, as long as they don’t try too hard. The second season of TNT’s “Raising the Bar,” which is now airing, and the upcoming return of “Leverage,” are good examples. Neither is a great TV show worthy of comparison to great, occasionally comedic dramas such as “Dexter” or “House,” but both are enjoyable without being pointless. Even the actors appear like they’re having fun, especially on “Leverage,” which features a different ridiculous caper each week.
Sometimes great TV series air during the summer months, such as “True Blood,” now in its second season, or “Mad Men,” which returns in August. While they’re fantastic television series, what makes them work as acceptable summer TV is the lack of serious competition, never mind a DVR.
Even with all of these new seasons and new shows — many of which debut in the summer because a network is essentially dumping its bad investments during a time when fewer people will watch — there is still plenty of room on the schedule for repeats.
Time to catch up on reruns
Repeats still work well; besides decreasing the amount of must-watch TV during the year, they give people a chance to catch up. For example, those who missed the way “The Big Bang Theory” grew from a mediocre, one-note sitcom in its first season to a rich comedy in last year’s second season can introduce themselves to Jim Parsons’ hysterical Sheldon and its other characters. Those who like to watch David Caruso remove his sunglasses and say absurdly unrealistic things can watch repeats of “CSI: Miami” on both CBS and A&E.
For some, obsessing over something is their idea of a break or entertainment, and different kinds of summer TV shows fill different needs. TLC hoped that “Jon & Kate Plus 8” was going to fill the summer months with family drama, but the title characters’ divorce plans sent their show into hiatus until August, although that left fans and detractors alike with even more to discuss.
Summer often brings time off or, especially for students and teachers, time to kill, and there are shows that fill those voids. The biggest one has been around for nine years now: CBS’ “Big Brother,” with its soundstage house full of people who have or will soon develop severe personality disorders.
On TV, there are 24 hours a week of “Big Brother,” including three hours of “Big Brother After Dark” on Sho2 every night, never mind 24 hours of live feeds streaming from inside the house to viewers’ computers — plenty to fill the otherwise empty days and nights.
The best part, though, is that when the show is over, it’s over.
The “Big Brother” cast doesn’t get media coverage or attention like the “Idols” do; they disappear back into the ether that was the increasingly hot, sweaty summer, where TV first entertains us and then just keeps us cool until fall can offer relief in the form of our regularly scheduled programming.